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We just spent several hours observing teenagers hanging out at our local mall.

We came to the conclusion that many teenagers in America today are living in poverty.  Most young men we observed didn’t even own a belt; there was not one among the whole group.

But that wasn’t the sad part.  Many were wearing their daddy’s jeans.  Some jeans were so big and baggy they hung low on their hips, exposing their underwear.  We know some must have been ashamed their daddy was short, because his jeans hardly went below their knees.  They weren’t even their daddies’ good jeans, for most had holes ripped in the knees and a dirty look to them.

It grieved us, in a modern, affluent society like America, that there are those who can’t afford a decent pair of jeans.  We were thinking about asking our church to start a jeans drive for “poor kids at the mall.”  Then, on Christmas Eve, we could go Christmas caroling at the mall and distribute jeans to these poor teenagers.

But here is the saddest part…it was the girls they were hanging out with that disturbed us most.  Never, in all of our lives, have we seen such poverty-stricken girls.  These girls had the opposite problem of the guys.  They all had to wear their little sister’s clothes.  Their jeans were about 5 sizes too small!

We don’t know how they could get them on, let alone button them up.  Their jeans barely went over their hip bones.  Most also had on their little sister’s top; it hardly covered their midsections.  Oh, they were trying to hold their heads up with pride, but it was a sad sight to see these almost grown women wearing children’s clothes.

However, it was their underwear that bothered us most.  They, like they boys, because of the improper fitting of their clothes, had their underwear exposed.  We had never seen anything like it.  It looked like their underwear was only held together by a single piece of string.

We know it saddens your heart to receive this report on the condition of our American teenagers.  While we go to bed every night with closets full of clothes nearby, there are millions of “mall girls” who barely have enough material to keep it together.  We think their “poorness” is why these 2 groups gather at the mall; boys with their short daddies’ ripped jeans, and girls wearing their younger sisters’ clothes.  The mall is one place where they can find acceptance.  So, next time you are at the mall, doing your shopping, and you pass by some of these poor teenagers, would you say a prayer for them?

One more thing:  Will you pray the guys’ pants won’t fall down, and the girls’ strings wont’ break?

We thank you all,

Two Concerned Grandmothers

[author unknown]

Happy Eating Lard

Happy Eating Lard

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Let’s All Grow Up

As an observer and listener of world events across a spectrum of news channels, I am wondering what it is going to take for the more moderate voices in our world to be heard.  It seems that only the radical voices, extremists if you want, get all the air time.  And now, a small time pastor, Reverend Terry Jones, of a congregation of barely 50 persons and shrinking in Florida has captured the world stage with a threat to burn the Quran.

Almost a year ago (October 1, 2009 to be precise), I posted a blog article entitled, “Let’s All Calm Down.”  In it I called for people to settle down and realize that the issues we face today, when placed in historical context, should not be all that alarming to us.  Running around scream in a high-pitched Chicken Little-like voice that our world is ending is non-productive.  In historical context, politically and religiously, this is hardly the worst of times for the United States of America.

Whether it is debating health care, taxes or government programs, it seems that the discussion always devolves into a tit-for-tat battle.  In juvenile-like behavior patters, instead of taking responsibility for our own actions and outcomes, we seem to be concerned with who started it and placing the blame.  It is time we all grew up and got over “it” – whatever the particular “it” of the blame game we are playing.

This should go with Americans attitudes towards radical and extremists of the Muslim religion and vice-versa. Instead of trying to figure out who “drew first blood” so that “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” can be extracted, the mature adult thing to do would be to stand above the offense.  I often teach my kids when they are being picked on by their siblings or kids at school that one of the most potent weapons to disarm a potential enemy is to first not respond to their behaviors and actions.  If that does not work, then proceed to draw attention to their actions by drawing in the attention of others – authority figures and peers.  If your behavior is above reproach, they will support you and fight for you.  In the end, you will have to do very little.

Granted, this is a difficult approach to take when our emotions running high and our pride and feelings have been hurt. However, acting like a bunch of juvenile gang members or kids on a play ground seeking revenge for every slight will not get us anywhere either.  Someone needs to become the adult in a very volatile situation.  Reverting to our childhood antics and behaviors will not solve our world problems or bring peace.

So, the Reverend – with such a title used very loosely – Terry Jones seems to have forgotten the most basic teachings of Jesus when it comes to how we are to treat our enemies: pray for them, serve them and love them.  Of course, this requires a very mature approach toward our perceived enemies; many of whom turn out not to be our enemies at all but people only acting out of their own hurt and woundedness, albeit in an immature way.  Unfortunately, Terry Jones is not alone in America.  I have heard many people through our media respond in justifying the action of burning the Quran or vandalizing Islamic worship and community centers with:

  • “Well, they burn our flag in their land!”
  • “If they burn our Bibles, we should be able to burn their Holy Book.”
  • “Islam promotes hatred and persecution of Christians all over the world.”
  • “They were shouting Quranic verses when they flew those jets into the Twin Towers.”
  • “They preach against America as “the great Satan” and want to attack us again, so we have the right to practice our right to freedom of speech by letting them know how we feel about it.”
  • “We have the right to protest and practice our freedom of speech.  Who cares what they think about it.”

Notice that in some way all of these statements hold a kernel of truth.  The real question, however, is whether they are the mature, adult way to respond.  It may be true that my son was hit first by another kid at school.  That does not give him a right to retaliate in like manner and expect to not bear the consequences of those actions: trouble at school with possible expulsion and trouble at home.  It may be correct that another kid called my girl a nasty name, but that does not permit her to respond in a similar way.

We should expect no less of a response for our adult situations in a troubled world.  When will we start to grow up and act like the adults in this cosmic play ground?  When will we stop responding to force with force?  Or, reverting to name calling with name calling and demeaning labels?  Who will be the first to take the moral high road of forgiveness and reconciliation?

Classic Ford Hood Ornament, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, 2010

Classic Ford Hood Ornament, Cool Desert Nights Auto Show, Richland, Washington, 2010 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

One would hope that Christians, in keeping with their message and mission, would be among those.  Where are the adult voices among all religions that call for tolerance, forgiveness, longsuffering, patience, kindness, grace, mercy and justice?  Who in the Christian community is calling for larger Christian community to reflect the teachings of Jesus on the world stage?  I believe they are out there.  They are just not being heard.  Bad news seems to sell better than any good news.  So, a crazy, fundamentalist pastor of an insignificant congregation in Florida gets world-wide air time while the deeds of countless Christians around the world to, for and among Muslims goes unrecorded.  Go figure.

I cannot speak for other world religions, but having been a Christian leader in congregations for 25 years and having studied the Bible with three degrees in Biblical Studies and Theology, I do believe that I have some understanding of where Jesus would steer us:

  • “You have heard people say, “Love your neighbors and hate your enemies.”  But I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you.  Then you will be acting like your Father in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both good and bad people. And he sends rain for the ones who do right and for the ones who do wrong.  If you love only those people who love you, will God reward you for that? Even tax collectors love their friends.  If you greet only your friends, what’s so great about that? Don’t even unbelievers do that?  But you must always act like your Father in heaven.”  (Matt. 5:43 – 48)
  • “Whenever you stand up to pray, you must forgive what others have done to you. Then your Father in heaven will forgive your sins.”  (Matt. 11:25, 26)
  • “Even if one of them mistreats you seven times in one day and says, “I am sorry,” you should still forgive that person.”  (Luke 17:4)
  • “But love your enemies and be good to them…Have pity on others, just as your Father has pity on you.  Jesus said: Don’t judge others, and God won’t judge you. Don’t be hard on others, and God won’t be hard on you. Forgive others, and God will forgive you.”  (Luke 6:35 – 37)

Or, where the Apostle Paul’s instructions to the churches would take us:

  • “Dear friends, don’t try to get even. Let God take revenge. In the Scriptures the Lord says, “I am the one to take revenge and pay them back.  The Scriptures also say, “If your enemies are hungry, give them something to eat.  And if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. This will be the same as piling burning coals on their heads.  Don’t let evil defeat you, but defeat evil with good.”  (Rom. 12:19 – 21)
  • “Stop being bitter and angry and mad at others. Don’t yell at one another or curse each other or ever be rude.  Instead, be kind and merciful, and forgive others, just as God forgave you because of Christ.”  (Eph. 4:31, 32)
  • “…forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you.”  (Col. 3:13)

The easy road to take?  No!  But being the mature adult in a room full of children is never an easy task.  It is tiring and trying.  Ask any middle school teacher.  However, it is the road that a majority must willingly and intentionally take to make our world a better place.

Will it come with a price?  Yes!  It will mean being willing to take the brunt of abuses given by those who choose to act out.  The role of the parent in the home is not to reflect the behaviors of the children in the home.  This may mean not taking the ravings of their teenager to seriously.  It may mean overlooking the slight of an angry child who screams, “I hate you!”  Shouting, “I hate you too!” back will only escalate the problem not solve it.  So, assuming the posture of the adult on the world stage may mean absorbing abuses and even the shedding of our own blood.

I do not know a parent of any child who at some time has not wished that the responsibility for being the adult in the home was not theirs.  That is only natural because it can be an exhausting and frustrating endeavor to constantly provide for and police those given into our charge.  However, surrendering our position is not an option.  Neither is reverting back to our own child-like behaviors of our past.  Fortunately, there are many all across the spectrum of religions and politics who act responsibly.  They take care of the poor, stand against injustice, suffer with the disenfranchised, come alongside the marginalized and actively contribute to making our world a better place.  We just need more of them and need to hear their voices.

So, it is time we all grew up.  Stop acting and responding like children.  Begin to behave out of our higher ideals and values – political and religious.  Be willing to bear the cost of improving our world for our children.  Become the voices of reason against the squall or school-yard language and rhetoric.  Refuse to play the “who done it to who first game.”  Then, perhaps in time, the whole world will grow up to become what we all hope it will become.  A place where we can all get along.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Pluribus and Unum

The United States of America has somewhat of a schizophrenic community identity.  On the one hand, we relish in the idea that we are a “melting pot” of cultures; a country where people from any culture are welcome to legally come and establish a new home.  However, on the other hand, we worship the idea or myth of the rugged individual who comes to this country or who pioneers a new horizon; a country where an individual can realize the potential of all that he or she can become with enough hard work and luck.

For some time now, I have been pondering the sources of these attitudes within our American culture.  More specifically, I have wondered about our idea of the rugged individual who makes it on his or her own and how that shapes our relationships, politics and religion.  We love our pioneer stories.  We almost worship the entrepreneur who starts out with nothing and produces something out of a garage or shop that not only attains success but also produces wealth.  Our movies make heroes of the rebellious individual who beats the system or the status quo accepted by the larger majority.

This heightened sense of the individual over the community gives rise to many tensions in our society. Loyalty is no longer given to any one group but to the self.  So, individuals move from church to church, job to job, and even community to community for personal advantage.  Loyalty is passe’, whether it is to a marriage union or workers union.  Most Americans are looking for the “best deal” and “for the right price.”  We have taken the American Founders ideal of an individual’s freedom to pursue “life, liberty and happiness” to individualistic twisted ends.

Individualism fractures society more than it unifies it.  It seems to be the human tendency to move toward separateness until there is something that unites us – a common enemy, a common problem, or a common experience in the midst of disaster.  Once the threat has passed, however, jockeying begins all over for the selfishly personal “best seat at the table.”  Jesus’ disciples exhibited this same behavior despite the fact that it was Jesus who brought them all together and was the unifying factor.  Perhaps church bodies could learn something from their example and Jesus’ instructions to them.

Of course, the fracture of civilization and its relationships is nothing new to human existence. It is as old as the Garden of Eden where the break in community with other humans and with their Creator began.  However you tell the story and understand it, it perfectly illustrates the human condition.  From Genesis chapter three through history up to today, we witness the effects of the rips and tears in our social fabric.  The story of the Tower of Babel, when God caused confusion through language and culture, is only the pinnacle of this story.  Humanity has been on a steady descent ever since despite the attempts of world rulers and empires to bring a return to a one-world order according to their terms.  This has only led to resistance and further fractures in the global human community.

Washington D.C. Capital Buildings, Spring 2009

Washington D.C. Capital Buildings, Spring 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

Of course, conveyors of conspiracy theories like to point to one of the Latin phrases on the reverse side of the United States’ Great Seal to show that the U.S. is involved in the same scheme. The Latin words

Reverse of the Great Seal of the United States.

Image via Wikipedia

Novus ordo seclorum” are taken by them to mean “New World Order” when, in fact, they truly mean “New Order of the Ages;” signifying the beginning of a new era with the birth of the United States of America.  The other Latin phrase appearing with it is “Annuit coeptis,” which means “God favored our undertakings.”  So, there is a bit of irony in the theories of conspiratists in that it would seem that they believe the U.S. is involved in some diabolical plan to take over the world with God’s blessings.

At any rate, the Latin phrase on the U.S. Great Seal which most Americans are more familiar with is “E Pluribus Unum.” This is roughly translated “out of many, one” or “one from many.”  In recent American history, it has been embraced to refer to the great cultural “melting pot” of this country.  However, at the beginning of American independence from Great Britain, it was an attempt to directly reflect the unity of the diverse thirteen colonies.

Modern Americans tend to forget just how fractious those early colonies were based upon their religious preferences, politics, loyalties to England, economies and ideals of the ruling classes. The contentions were never really settled until after the Civil War – and some would argue, especially from the southern United States, that it is still not settled.  Early on, the threat of secession from the federal union was always present; first from the northern states and then from the south.  Politics became divided very early over the preeminence of individual and state rights versus federal rights.  We still wage political battle over those ideas today.  This conflict may always be in flux and never really settled in our American democracy.

Interestingly, E Pluribus Unum was the motto of the United States of America until 1956, when it replaced with In God We Trust.” Until then, it appears on most U.S. coinage since it was mandated by law in 1873.  It first appeared on U.S. coinage in 1795 even though it was first proposed for the Great Seal of the U.S. in August of 1776 and finally formally adopted in 1782.  In the 1776 proposal, which Benjamin Franklin had a hand in, the seal had a shield with six symbols; each symbol representing the six main countries that provided immigrants to the colonies: the rose (England), thistle (Scotland), harp (Ireland), fleur-de-lis (France), lion (Holland), and an imperial two-headed eagle (Germany).  Those six symbols were surrounded by thirteen smaller shields, which were to represent “the thirteen independent States of America.”  Of course, the “independence” of those states and the others to follow would greatly change with the new constitution of 1883.

The idea that a country not formed by, from or for any one ethnic group can exist without fracturing into hundreds of splintering self-interest groups is still being tested.  The United States and its people are still very much a democratic experiment in the making.  The strength of our union requires every citizen and local and state government to bow to higher ideals than self-interest.  This, in part, was the empowering force behind Abraham Lincoln’s administration and other leaders to seek to preserve the union with southern states who attempted to go their own way.

Even in many American churches, the unity of the church fellowship takes pre-eminence over selfish desires and goals. There is a desire on the part of the individual to be a part of something larger than just the small cosmic consciousness that the individual inhabits.  Becoming and being a part of a community of faith enlarges one’s life and capacity for living in and through the lives of others as believers pray, worship and serve together.  The essence of the Gospel and the Church’s theology is that the Creator, through His incarnation in His Son, Jesus, has come to bring true unity in human and divine relationships.  As the apostle Paul would have it, the enmity or hostilities created by cultures, languages, skin colors and offenses to God have been removed by the peace offering made by Jesus the Messiah on the cross.

So, we are not merely “pluribus” – many independent individuals or states of being seeking to find out own way. We are also “unum” – formed as Americans in our democracy to unite around those ideals that make us a unique light to the rest of the world.  We are a cosmic declaration that people from different parts of the world, with different skin colors, abiding by different religious convictions can not just merely co-exist but also become unified for the common good of each individual in its society to pursue life, liberty and happiness.  It was this very audacious and precarious idea that caused most of the America’s Founders and the truly wise and understanding today to constantly invoke the help and aid of Providence.  And so, it seems, as long as the help of heaven preserves our union and democracy, we will continue to be E Pluribus Unum.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Outward Posture, Inward Rebellion

There is something innate in human nature that makes most people want to conform to the social mores of a group to be accepted. It is the way we identify “those who are like us” and “those who are not like us.”  Even those who consider themselves mavericks, loners and social outcasts often conform to way of behaving and dressing that identifies them with all the other mavericks, loners and social outcasts.  As such, paradoxically, they become a part of their own self-identified group even though they want to exhibit their individualism and anti-group attitude.

No where is the propensity to want to identify with a particular coterie more evident than in or among religious and political groups. Even then, political assemblies do not hold a candle stick to the divisive nature of religious groups.  This is not just an issue with any one particular religion, but all religions.  Christians used to murder one another over doctrinal distinctives as quickly as Muslim Sunnis, Shias and other Islamic sects do today in the Middle and Far East.  Hindu castes war with one another and tribalism is known to rule many parts of the warring factions of Buddhists.

I am not able to speak to the other religions state of division, but I am not the only one among Christians who are dismayed at the lack of charity and love many Christians show one another from different doctrinal streams. This is especially ironic given the particular emphasis its founder, Jesus the Messiah, place upon “loving one another” in the Christian community.  It was these loving, grace-filled communities that were supposed to be a sign and witness to the rest of the world that God’s Kingdom had truly come to earth.

Without denying what is clearly described as the central tenets of the faith that all Christians can agree upon, nor marginalizing what all can agree Scripture clearly identifies as sin, it seems to me that there is a lot of room for allowing others to follow Jesus according to the dictates of one’s own heart and conscience without imposing those upon others.  Alas, this does not seem to be the case.  Like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Jesus’ day, Christians are determined to cluster in groups for the only particular purpose of identifying “who is in” and “who is out;” like they have some decision in the matter of who actually gets into heaven and who doesn’t.

So, we like to bunch ourselves around labels: conservatives versus liberals, fundamentalists versus evangelicals, pentecostals versus charismatics, dunking baptizers versus sprinkling baptizers, social gospel versus proclamation gospel, baby baptizers versus baby dedicators, congregationalists versus presbyteries, hi-church versus lo-church, liturgical versus non-liturgical, King James version only versus modern translations, traditional church music versus contemporary church music, denominational versus independent non-denominational.  And the grouping goes on and on and on.

It would be one thing if this was simply an attempt to gather like minds and hearts to worship and learn together. This could be done while at the same time recognizing and embracing other Christian fellowships that have different expressions and doctrinal emphases.  Sadly, this is not the case for the vast majority of churches and their followers.  The pride of triumphalism creeps into the gang gathered that emits an attitude that communicates, if not expressed overtly and outwardly at least inwardly, that they are the “only true” believers on God’s planet.  God must laugh, or weep.

All that we seemed to have accomplished with such behaviors is to confound nonbelievers and tarnish our testimony to the One we are striving to follow. Then, to make matters worse, our efforts to ensure group conformity in beliefs and behaviors only produce among us disingenuous and hypocritical believers.  The disciples we produce are able to spout our dearest doctrinal truths and exhibit, at least while within and among the group, the expected pious behavior.  Thus, they have an outward posture that says they genuinely belong to the Christian sect, but inwardly struggle with rebellion that will express itself sooner or later.

Once again, human efforts at religion create a human-focused and human-energized faith system. A faith system that holds in bondage its followers to a scripted religious expression and holds at a distance anyone who is at variant with that particular expression.  Is doctrine important?  Yes.  Is righteousness or right-living important?  Yes.  However, outward conformity to either of these without a change in heart only breeds a deadly religious syncretism where faith and belief do not really change attitude and heart.

Extending love and grace to everyone on their spiritual journeys, no matter where they may be in them, is the only way to live in the communal unity Jesus called his disciple to attain. Instead of attempting to identify “who’s in” and “who’s out,” what if every Christian fellowships goal was to identify where people are on their spiritual pilgrimage?  What if Christians permitted one anther to cluster around like interests and similar spiritual journeys without rejecting or disparaging other Christians of different interests and dissimilar spiritual journeys?

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

In my household, all four of my children are different from one another. They have different abilities and talents; dissimilar likes and dislikes; as well as a various mix of personality traits from their paternal and maternal side of the family.  In my household, I do not attempt to make them all like the same thing.  They do not all have to play the same sport or same games.  Even the formation of their behaviors and beliefs has taken on unique and interesting paths.

I do not love any one of them more than any other. I love each of my kids dearly.  I cannot imagine my household without them.  Each of their character, sense of humor, way of doing things, seeing things, approaching things and processing things adds variety to our family life.  Yes.  Sometimes it is frustrating and even maddening.  At the same time, all of our differences can bring hilarity and light moments.

The point is this: we do not sit around the dining room table trying to identify who is really part of the family and who is not.  As amazingly different as we are all from one another, there is enough family resemblance to assure us that there is no mistaking our family tree.  Instead of picking one another a part with differences, we attempt to celebrate them.  And, as we mature, those very traits that once drove us to distraction when we were younger now become the most endearing qualities we love about each other.

We are not a perfect family. We have our dysfunctions for sure; just like God’s family here on earth.  What if God sees his family like this?  What if he loves each of our clusters, fellowships and groups as much as the next one?  What if he looked upon us with loving eyes and just wished we would honor and love each other the way he esteems and loves us?  What if he recognizes our spiritual quirks, illogical dogmas and inconsistent righteousness and loves us anyway and wishes we would do the same for each other?  Imagine that for a moment.

In truth, humanity is broken. Along with the rest of humanity, Christians are broken people seeking healing and wholeness in their Creator.  In the long run, it may suit our efforts toward personal healing and wholeness and seeing God’s Kingdom truly come to earth if we simply stopped and rejected our own religious posturing.  Rather than expending so much energy identifying “who’s in” and “who’s out,” if we took time to recognize our own tendencies toward inward rebellion, we may be more apt to extend grace to others.  This, in turn, may allow us to broaden our acceptance, care and love to all our spiritual siblings in the heavenly Father’s household.  It is, after all, his house and not ours.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Soon after the tragedy of 9/11, I was in a gathering of community pastors praying for our nation, national leaders, military personnel and community. The emotions among all of us were raw and ranged from bewilderment to anger over the act of terrorism that took thousands of innocent lives on that terrible September day.  The overall consensus was that the United States needed to pursue the masterminds behind this attack on our soil.  In short, everyone favored attacking/invading Afghanistan.  I found myself in the minority.

It was not that I stood against military action to seek out the perpetrators of this heinous act. Rather, I strongly believed then that only military action, and military action gone awry in particular, would do the U.S. more harm than good.  I had read history books that detailed the rise and fall of empires, kingdoms and nations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.  So far, the success rate was abysmal.

One can go back to the ancient Babylonian, Mede and Persian empires to see how quickly control of governing power in that part of the world can change hands. Alexander the Great lost a great portion of his army and ultimately died in that part of the world.  The Romans and their military machine never really fully conquered or controlled it.  Violent tribalism raged for centuries.

In more modern times, the Ottoman Empire succeeded only when it ruled these areas with an iron fist. Then, the British Empire was more than willing to give up control over these areas after World War I and the close of the colonial period.  It had paid a heavy price economically and militarily to just maintain a presence in that part of the world.  Its attempt to bring “civilization” and Western style government to these areas almost bankrupt it.  The nation building that followed World War I and World War II did little to bring about actual, viable governments.  The results of these efforts are what we are still dealing with today.

I may be wrong. Time will only tell; more so because the military work in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan (with unstable Iran in the middle) is not yet done.  The most wanted of the 9/11 conspirators are still at large.  It looks to be possible that America’s longest war will linger on another few years at least.  So far, the success of building a strong government in these areas is spotty at best.

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Hot Rod, Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

At the same time, I am delighted to discover that others are taking a different approach to addressing the struggles and needs of this part of the world. One such person is Greg Mortenson.  After reading his book, “Three Cups of Tea,” I started right into his most recent book (2009), “Stones Into Schools.”  It continues the tale of a mountaineer’s failed ascent of K-2, becoming lost in the wilderness and recovering in a very small, remote Pakistani village.  Greg is that mountaineer and “Three Cups of Tea” details his adventures that end in the building of a school for that village, along with the promise to build many more in the remotest areas of this part of the world.

This is the story continued in “Stones Into Schools.” However, the setting switches from Pakistan to Afghanistan.  Through contacts made with the people from the most remote parts of Northeast Afghanistan, called the Wakhan Corridor, Greg Mortenson and his team of unlikely heroes do the impossible.  They build schools for liberal arts education – math, science, reading and writing – in the most remote and poor of parts Afghanistan; the places where its own government will not go.  These schools, while open to boys and girls, specifically target the education of girls.  This is something that challenges the radicals of Islamic extremism – Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

By including village elders, tribal leaders and local workers, Greg Mortenson has guaranteed that these schools are locally owned and controlled. The finances provided for materials and some of the labor come with the caveat that the education will focus on reading, writing and math and that at least half the students will be girls.  Not only is the idea of a school enthusiastically embraced by the villagers, but so is the promise of educating their girls!  They are so committed to both of these that they are willing to defy the Taliban who threaten the teachers, students and their school buildings.  Not only are they doing this, but they are succeeding at it.

The success of Greg Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute in Pakistan and Afghanistan has captured the attention of many world leaders. The book “Three Cups of Tea” became required reading for all military leaders involved in Iraq and Afghanistan.  The approaches that Greg has taken to build relationships with village elders and allowing them to be decision-makers is now the approach the military personnel is taking toward building solid local governments in the communities in which they are placed.

The military leaders who have read “Three Cups of Tea” and “Stones Into Schools” is a list of “Who’s Who”: General David Petraeus, Admiral Eric Olson, General Stanley McChrystal, Major General Mastin Robeson, General James Conway, Colonel Stephen Davis, Major Jason Nicholson, Major General John Macdonald, Major General Curtis Scaparrotti to name just a few.  Likewise, these books are well-known among some of our governmental leaders: Rep. Mary Bono, Rep. Earl Pomeroy, Rep. Jean Schmidt, Rep. Denny Rehberg, Senator Max Baucus, Senator Olympia Snow, Senator Mark Udall, Senator Richard Lugar, Senator Ben Cardin, Senator John Kerry, among many others.

Whatever the future may hold, I believe that anyone who has strong opinions or cares about what happens in this part of the world owes it to themselves to read these two books. They are delightful reading.  Besides a captivating and moving story, they give you an insight into a culture that is terribly misunderstood.  More importantly, I believe these stories can show us another way of bringing peace and stability to this war-torn part of the world.  Instead of creating more enemies through military action and violence against innocence, this is a model for a way to build healthy relationships with people who are far removed from where and how we live in the U.S.  It will take “Three Cups of Tea” to turn “Stones Into Schools.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Ecclesiatical Darwinianism

Many churches and denominations depend upon an entrepreneurial spirit in its leadership to grow. This has its strong points and its weak points.  These types of leaders provide innovation, creativity and are more likely to start church ventures.  They are not adverse to risk and often lead congregations and their churches through transformations.  Unfortunately, these leaders and their churches also tend to become personality driven around the dynamic leader.  This has its own challenges for churches and denominations.

On the other hand, these types of leaders are rare and successful ones not all that common. Many who answer the call to ministry operate with much different personalities and giftings.  In these churches and denominations, they do not usually fair too well since their support is dependent upon how well they can grow their own congregation.  There is no denominational or broader church support.  This is not always a bad thing, particularly when the church and its leadership are in a community context where growth is a possibility.  However, this is not the case for the vast majority of churches in medium to small size communities.

The effect upon the church, then, is that small-town churches often become training grounds for pastors hoping to one day lead a church that can be self-supporting, which includes a livable wage for him and his family. Some pastors are able to make the transition to larger churches; others are not.  Some are given an opportunity to “move up” to larger churches; many are not.  After all, about 80% of American churches are congregation under 100 people and that vast majority of them are in rural settings.

More to the point is the pressure this places upon the individual pastor and his family. For example, I pastored Assembly of God churches for many years.  This denomination fits this scenario well.  Its churches are governed congregationally and considered to be a part of a “cooperative fellowship” with other Assembly of God churches.  (I would always joke that while this is true, our independent nature made it so that we did not cooperate very well with others.)  While Assembly of God pastors are governed by a presbyterium – church elders – at the denominational level, each church governs itself.

I like to call this method of church governance “Ecclesiastical Darwinianism.” It is simply the approach to churches and pastors that says, “If you are called of God, then you will succeed.  However, if you fail and do not survive, then you were not called of God in the first place.”  In a theologically Arminian denomination like the Assemblies of God, it is a very Calvinistic approach to the call of God concerning churches and pastoral leadership.  At its core is “the survival of the fittest” or most able.

At the same time, the Assemblies of God in particular, is able to send missionaries fully funded and supported to the farthest reaches of the earth. The same care and concern is not provided for those planting or pastoring churches in their own soil in the United States.  This is changing today with a more proactive approach on the denominations part in planting churches and equipping church planters.  However, for the vast majority of pastors who go to their small and usually rural churches, they are largely left on their own with congregations and churches buildings that are aging.  It is no wonder, then, that their pastoral candidates who come out of their Bible schools or seminary training are unable or unwilling to go to these locations.

I started out in ministry in what the Assemblies of God called a “Home Missions” church. This is a church that is being planted in a community, may receive very limited temporary support and is not yet fully independent in its governance.  As a bright-eyed and optimistic young pastor, I expected the church to grow and do well even though it was located in a small Pacific Northwest logging community of only about 1,200 people.  In retrospect, while the years there were extremely tough for my family financially, they were some of the most rewarding times of ministry.

Imagine my surprise and dismay, then, when other pastors congratulated on small spiritual victories I would share with them with something like,Boy, that’s great, Ron.  I can see that someday the Lord is going to place you in a thriving, larger church.”  Maybe I am wrong, but it always came across to me as, “Someday the Lord will reward you with a real church!”  However, as my young family grew, it became more and more evident that I would not be able to support my family in that community despite my several attempts at earning other income: working at the local hardware store, coaching at the school, chopping and delivering firewood, picking oysters, digging clams, etc.

Cool Desert Nights Antique Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Cool Desert Nights Antique Auto Show, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

One day, the Presbyterian Church in town had a pastoral change. The 100 year-old congregation was looking for a pastor.  Imagine my surprise to find out that the pastor was guaranteed a salary, with benefits, and a parsonage.  The starting salary then was $36,000.  I contemplated the idea of switching denominations to stay in the community and pastor…well, only for a brief moment.

I remained loyal to my denomination and local congregation. However, as my pastoral experience has broadened over the last 25 years, I have had an opportunity to look at numerous church governance models.  I came to a conviction that the “Ecclesiastical Darwinian” model is not the most successful or most healthy.  I see other denominations that do a much better job at helping a congregation match a pastor with a congregation, rather than leave it up to the “luck of the draw” or a weekend pastoral song-and-dance routine.  I also see other denominations that do a much better job at supporting the local church pastor, not just financial but also spiritually.

When I was involved in the ‘Ecclesiastical Darwinianism’ model, I rarely heard from district or national leadership unless it was initiated by me or unless there was church trouble. Other than demanding my tithes and desiring my attendance at their sponsored events, I did not have much support.  Any spiritual support I had while in ministry came for friends in ministry, some who were other Assembly of God ministers but most who were not.

Congregations in the ‘Ecclesiastical Darwinianism’ model do not fare much better. They are expected to ‘make it on their own.’  Many of them, particularly in rural areas, are surviving just above life support.  Their pastors are bi-vocational and their facilities decaying and outdated.  When it comes time to select a new pastor, the best they can expect from district leadership is a list of available pastors or pastors seeking changes.  Otherwise, they must sort through the resumes they receive, pray about it and pick one.  They may as well tack them to a wall and throw a dart at them blindfolded.  If they choose well, then they and their new pastor are congratulated.  However, if they choose badly, well, they either did not pray enough or the pastor wasn’t called of God to go there in the first place.

For churches and denominations stuck in this model, change will be difficult; perhaps impossible. However, speaking personally for myself and my experience, I believe that a much better job can be done.  The same care we take to match a missionary to an overseas calling and assignment, ensure that they are fully supported and cared for, and given accountability and spiritual support, could and should be applied to the mission field we know as the United States of America.  How that transition in involvement takes place is another issue.  All I know is that there has got to be something better than ‘Ecclesiastical Darwinianism.’

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Disabling the Spiritual Default Setting

A while ago someone gave me a new laptop computer. Even though a computer is a complicated piece of machinery, I did not have to go to school or a special class to learn how to use it.  I simply turned it on.  I did not have to learn how all the hardware pieces work and communicate with the motherboard.  Neither did I have to learn the computer’s programming language that runs the system so smoothly.

The operating system was already familiar and so I was able to navigate around pretty simply. I was able to pull up and run the programs I needed plus add a couple I use that did not come with the computer.  There were a few things that I did to the computer to personalize it to suit my needs, but most of the settings I left in the default position.

The default setting is set by the manufacturer or maker of the hardware or software. It usually is the setting that fits most applications or users’ needs.  These can be changed at the user’s discretion or desires.  Most people just leave them alone and do not play with them.  It is a real frustration to use someone else’s computer when they have dramatically changed many of the settings.  Suddenly, what was supposed to be familiar becomes very unfamiliar.

This got me thinking about many of the changes we see taking place in the church today. Change is always a part of remaining tuned to cultural needs to work and communicate the good news about God’s Kingdom.  However, in today’s world, change is coming at us more and more quickly.  It is like someone has gone into the world’s operating system and changed all the settings.  For many people, this can be very disorienting.  It is even more disorienting when the spiritual default settings have been changed and the once familiar church is no longer familiar.

As a former church leader, I witnessed this take place over the last 25 years. Some changes that took place during that time were good.  Others have yet to tell us what the long term effects will be upon the church and the followers of Jesus.  There is a heartfelt search going on in many Christian communities of faith for a genuine, authentic spirituality that impacts the individual believer as well as his or her world.  Of course, this is not something with which only our generation just recently came to grips.  It’s been around a long, long time; almost like it is a part of the Church’s spiritual DNA.

One thing that I have noticed is the blending and generalization of evangelical Christianity. At the grass roots level anyway, denomination distinctives in faith and practice are largely ignored, denominational and doctrinal differences are played down, and a pluralism of Christian belief and practice is broadly accepted.  I realize that this is not true for every sector of American evangelicalism, but on a broad basis I believe it is accurate.  Still, it changes the spiritual default setting that many people are used to when they are a part of a church or denomination.

For instance, one can attend any number of conservative evangelical churches and witness the same type of worship that focuses upon modern music styles, personal expression in worship such as raising hands, and preaching that seeks to emulate the style and messages of larger church models and their leaders.  While each individual congregation retains its own distinct character and nature, in a broad overview they are all starting to sound and look alike.

Some of this has to do with what could be called the ‘cross-pollination’ of churches. More and more, believers across denominations with all their doctrinal and faith practice differences are gathering together for conferences, seminars, worship, missions and outreach events, as well as prayer.  Likewise, in many communities across the U.S.A., church leadership and denominational leadership is gathering to pray, worship and strategize together for Kingdom building.  There are still many places where this is not happening, but the tide is quickly shifting in America away from exclusivity to inclusivity.  This is a good thing, I believe.

Of course, some churches and denominations may fair better in this cultural shift than others. I have no prophetic insight or spiritual crystal ball to foretell how this will all turn out.  However, it is an unavoidable outcome.  There is already some indication that non-denomination and independent churches are growing faster than denominational ones.  However, it is still too early to tell what the American evangelical church will look like in another 25 years.  How this will affect individual believers will vary.

Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009

Cool Desert Nights, Richland, Washington, June 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

I can only speak from my personal experience. Having been involved in Assemblies of God churches all my life, I now find myself attending and becoming increasingly involved in an United Methodist Church that is part of the Confessing Movement in its denomination.  The contemporary worship service is the same as what anyone would experience in most Assembly of God churches.  I have found in this congregation many practicing Charismatics/Pentecostals.  There is a healthy discussion of spiritual gifts and following the leading of the Holy Spirit.  One Bible class I attended had a robust theology of the Holy Spirit (Pneumatology).

When people discover my background, they invariably ask, “How did you end up at a Methodist church?”  There are a lot of different reasons, but the main one is my own discovery and acknowledgment of how big God’s House is and the wide variety of theologies and spiritual practices he tolerates.  Yes, there are certain doctrinal truths that cannot be deviated from and sin that he deals with and asks his Church to deal with among its members.  Outside of these things, the boundaries of God’s tent are pretty wide.

Another thing that has struck me in recent years as a leader in Assembly of God churches is how quickly we were willing to abandon our “Pentecostal distinctive” to be included in the broader evangelical movement and accepted in the larger American Christian culture.  By this, I am specifically referring to the Assemblies of God stance on the baptism of the Holy Spirit with speaking in tongues.  Not only is this largely not taught but it is also not practiced.  More revealing is the broader elimination of the use of prophetic verbal gifts in the congregational setting all together.

Whether out of a desire to not appear the ‘weird uncle’ in the evangelical circles or because teaching and facilitating spiritual gifts in a congregation is necessary but hard work, most Assembly of God pastoral leaders that I associated with opted to avoid their use completely.  The recent ‘seeker sensitive’ movement has also put pressure on Assembly of God churches to do away with any expression of spiritual gifts that might scare off seekers.  This, in essence, disables the spiritual default setting for long-time Assembly of God members.

I came to the conclusion that if I was simply going to be a part of an evangelical church, it would probably not be an Assembly of God church.  Besides the issue of having integrity between doctrinal faith and practice, I desire to be a part of a congregation that recognizes the wide range of places that people may be on in their spiritual journeys and not demand that they all be on the same page or in the same place spiritually.  Having led in Assembly of God churches, I am not a fan of their church polity or congregational governance.  I think there are better accountability and support systems out there for church and pastoral leaders.  I will grant, however, that there are no perfect ones.

All that being said, I found myself in Assembly of God churches that seemed familiar to me but felt like someone had changed the default settings. The denomination label may be there somewhere, overtly on the signage or covertly hidden in internal papers, but the practice of using Spirit-led prophetic verbal gifts is gone.  Spirit baptism for Spirit empowerment to take the Gospel to all the world is missing in many places.  This may be a good thing, I suppose.  Abuse and triumphalism of its doctrinal emphasis on Spirit baptism and glossolalia has done much damage.

At the same time, if denominations are going to disable their spiritual default setting, then they should expect a shift and movement among their congregants. For instance, in my case, if the church I am attending is not really going to preach and practice its stated theology and rather move toward being just like any other evangelical church, then I have to ask myself, “Is this the type of evangelical church I want to attend or is there another model out there I would rather be a part of?”  My answer led me to another church model.

I suppose that there will be many like me who will choose to use their own personal spiritual settings to navigate around the changing landscape of the American evangelical church.  On the other hand, many will also stay because they cannot dream of going to a different building or location.  Let’s just hope that some do not simply get frustrated and turn the church setting off completely.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Some wise person once observed that we do not make our technology as much as our technology makes or shapes us.  This is perhaps at not time more evident that in our current technologically driven culture.  Of course, give it a few more years and the evidence will only be greater.  Most people embrace all forms of technology without question or judgment.  This is what the companies who market to the mass of humanity are hoping for from the consumers.

I have been without a cellular phone for over a year now.  After the initial technology withdrawals, I have been observing our culture with a different set of eyes.  It’s kind of like someone who has smoked for years and then quitting.  Suddenly, the world is different with tastes and smells that went unnoticed before under the ubiquitous cloud of smoke.

Now I notice couple and families strolling through the grocery store or neighborhood park together with one or more of them eye-pasted to their personal cell phone texting and receiving text messages.  Spouses and children go unnoticed, let alone their surroundings with its sights, sounds and activities.  Not only can so many of us not drive without attempting to text and receive text messages, but we also cannot sit in someone’s presence without checking out phone after every vibration or beep that emanates from it.

It used to be that “keeping up with the Jones'” meant that you too had indoor plumbing; then it was electricity; then it was a telephone; then it was a black and white television – and then a colored one; then it was the microwave; then it was a cordless phone; then it was the personal tape or CD player; then it was a car phone; then it was a computer; and, now, it is a cell phone.  However, it is more invasive than just having a cell phone.  Now my family must have cable TV with a personal TV in each person’s bedroom.  Each person is expected to also have their own computer – preferably a laptop.  With the phone or cable company’s family plan, each person in my family can also have a cell phone.  Thankfully, the phone or cable company can “bundle” all these services together so that I only get one bill a month – a big bill – instead of several.

Well, to save money and avoid the technology bill, my family is without cell phones.  So, to many of our acquaintances, we come across as Luddites.  On top of that we do not have a television, let alone cable.  So, that puts us in the “weird” category.  We do have two computers – a laptop and desktop – with internet capabilities, so once they hear that then we move up a category just above the Amish technology-wise.  It still strikes me as odd that my family of four cannot get by with two computers in our household.  There is constant haggling over who needs online next.  The rule is:  Work and school before play.

We have friends and family who spend their evenings with each member sitting in different rooms in the house self-entertaining themselves on their personal computers or TV’s.  Car trips are spent listening to personal listening devices and texting on cell phones.  Now there is also DVD players in cars and mini-vans to keep the kids entertained.  Better yet, personal DVD players are now available.  Hardly a church service, wedding or funeral goes uninterrupted from a cell phone going.  Our most important and sacred times together as humans are broken by the sounds of vibrating and beeping electronic devices.

Mink at Lake of the Woods, Minnesota, June 2007

Mink at Lake of the Woods, Minnesota, June 2007 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

It seems to me that the more our toys and objects become personalized the more we as individuals become impersonal.  We no longer stop to make conversation, eye contact, smile at passerby-ers or connect with those around us.  It is too easy for me to be absorbed in my own little world connected with only what interests me.  In short, I share my world with no one.  It becomes all about me – my texts, my play lists and my messages.

Time will only tell what the ramifications of this technological trend will have upon our future relationships and civilization.  There is already talk of some who are “fasting” from technology for periods of time.  Families are taking “no technology” vacations with no cell phones, personal listening or game devices.  Some radical individuals are attempting to “unplug” there lives as much as possible from all technology.  I do not recommend becoming a Luddite.  On the other hand, these efforts to reconnect without technological interruptions should be applauded.

The new conversation among technology companies and our government concerns “technology rights.” The idea is that every one has the right to have access to technology.  Everyone should have access to the internet, which requires access to a computer also.  My children are required now to use the internet for homework, either for research or to turn it in.  This puts a lot of pressure on even the poorest to have computers and internet access through the telephone or cable company.  Most do not live close enough to the public library to have ready access to those resources.

It is true as someone wisely observed about humans and technology:  What is a convenience today will be considered a right to own and have tomorrow.  When counseling and giving advice to individuals or families during difficult times, they cannot imagine forgoing the cost of cable or their cell phones.  It is unthinkable!  They would rather find ways to cut back on the grocery bill instead or not use the heat or air conditioning as much.  Like it or not, this is the new reality of the 21st century.

Subtly, our own technology and enamoration with it is redefining our existence. Like the humans in the Pixar movie WALL-E, technology appears to be taking over our lives.  Our dependence upon it puts us in a symbiotic relationship where our very existence – life, liberty and happiness – is dependent upon its co-existence.  This may very soon in our future redefine what it means to be human.  It already redefines the “haves” and “have nots.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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The State of Fear and Ignorance

Most of us do more out of fear and ignorance than we do out of courage and wisdom.  I know that my personal track record in that arena is not that good anyway.  Why is it that fear is such a greater motivator than courage or bravery?  Why are we so susceptible to acting in our ignorance before seeking wisdom and understanding concerning our circumstances?  Even the best of us can be taken down by these two imps of degenerate humanity.

I am constantly reminded of this in our current world affairs in the Middle East.  The West’s attempt to conquer the enemy of freedom and democracy as it appears in Al Qaeda and Taliban groups underscores this problem.  Instead of addressing the human equation, Western nations think that they are simply dealing with something that requires a military solution.  As history has showed us in all of our wars, it is never that simple.  There are many reasons why people go to war to protect their land or to force out a perceived invader.  Sometimes it is as raw and simple as “It pays the bills.”  Thus, it is another career choice and creates and military economy.

I just recently finished a book by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin entitled, “Three Cups of Tea:  One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace…One School at a Time” (Penguin Books, 2006).  It is so good that I purchases the follow-up book, “Stones into Schools:  Promoting Peace With Books, Not Bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan” by Greg Mortenson.  It is a remarkable book about how one man is changing the world through building schools for children, especially girls.  His personal story is so remarkable and well known among the Muslims of Afghanistan and Pakistan that he is accepted in some of the most hostile places to any other American.  It only begs the question: “How come more people are not doing this?  How come our American government is not taking more of this approach to defeating the Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership in this part of the world?

Greg Mortenson’s story in Three Cups of Tea is not a tale of unbroken successes.  It includes many failures as well as starts-and-stops.  Nevertheless, Mortenson’s persistence and willingness to be humble and learn the ways of others wins the day.  The key is relationships; by willing to take the time to build relationships, which takes time and patience, Greg Mortenson gained permission to have influence to help tribal groups better the lives of their children.  Thus, the work of Central Asia Institute was born and given life.  This is the idea of the three cups of tea Greg Mortenson had to experience in every village with every leader:  “The first cup of tea, you are a stranger.  The second cup of tea, you are a guest.  The third cup of tea, you are family and we will die for our family.”

California Poppies, Spring 2009

California Poppies, Spring 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

What is discovered vicariously through Mortenson’s experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan is that the Muslim people there want the same thing that everyone in the world wants for themselves and their families: jobs, peace, and a secure future.  Poverty, warfare and instability drive even the most peace loving people to desperate actions for a different life.  We have witnessed that as Americans in our own history during and immediately following the industrial revolution of the late 19th and early 20th century.

Mortenson’s conviction is that education is a key to freedom from poverty, constant war and government instability.  The early results from his successes at building schools in the hinterlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan seem to confirm this proposal.  The local people are willing to fight for themselves against the Al Qaeda and Taliban if they are given the right tools, starting with an education, then with clean water and finally economic development.  Groups like Pennies for Peace help advance this very simple premise.

The saddest part of the book, “Three Cups of Tea,” was the reaction of some Americans to Greg Mortenson’s efforts.  It would appear that fear and ignorance on the American side of the equation is just as dangerous as it is on the Muslim side.  There is still a state of fear and ignorance that many Americans hold to all Muslims; just witness the recent reaction of so many Americans to the idea of a mosque being built near the ground zero of the World Trade Center.  The assumption is that most or all Muslims are terrorists who want to kill, maim, and destroy anyone from the west.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The largest single effort to defeat radical, extremist Islamic Fundamentalists can only be through building relationships that bring about mutual understanding and respect.  By taking time to build relationships that binds the hearts and minds of people together, the world can change.  We must face the fact that there will always be haters and destroyers in the world.  We may not be able to change them.  However, we can change the state of fear and ignorance in which they hold everyone.  Let’s pray more Greg Mortenson’s arrive to help us get there.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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